Two effective forms of dissertation writing groups are those dedicated to quiet writing in the companionable presence of others and those that focus on support for the dissertation writing process. This post describes ways to make both types successful.
A third kind of group is structured to share writing and provide peer feedback. I wrote about them in Dissertation Writing Groups | Feedback and Motivation.
There is evidence that regular writing is the route to productivity. Robert Boice, a researcher who investigated and wrote about faculty life, found that faculty members who wrote regularly, kept a daily record, and held themselves accountable to someone else weekly, wrote 10 times as many pages as those who wrote occasionally in big blocks of time.
Graduate students, especially at the dissertation writing stage, often struggle to develop the habit of regular writing. Self-discipline, isolation, and motivation are common problems. Groups can help. Making a public commitment to others (and thus to yourself) assists building a regular writing habit.
Quiet Writing with Company
A quiet writing group only requires a regular time, a quiet working place, and some companions with a shared commitment. Read a first-hand description from Kelly Hanson at Grad Hacker.
- Weekly sessions are common, although sometimes small groups meet daily when writing is the top priority.
- Start each session with every participant stating a writing goal for the day.
- Access to food and drink (especially with caffeine) is a bonus.
Setting ground rules and shared understandings is important for these groups, just as it is for feedback groups (here are 11 questions to get feedback groups started). Questions of particular importance for quiet writing groups include:
- How many participants? How are they identified or invited?
- Is attendance required or optional? Should participants let others know if they will be absent?
- May participants arrive late? Leave early? Take breaks?
- How much noise is tolerated? Quiet conversation? Are phones allowed or turned off?
- Is internet access permitted? Instituting a “no email/no surfing” rule can focus the mind on writing. (Kenny Gibbs, in his 3 Keys interview, advocates this in his third piece of advice.)
There are lots of apps and tools for productive writing that can be used in quiet writing groups:
- Timers. Essential to the popular Pomodoro Technique, which breaks writing into 25 minute chunks followed by a 5 minute break.
- Productivity trackers. A simple spreadsheet allows you to log the number of words or pages you complete every time you write.
- Distraction blockers. Several tools for distraction-free writing are describe here and here at Grad Hacker.
- Note taking tools.
- Reference and citation managers.
Writing Support Groups
Support, encouragement, and improvement of your writing practice is the primary emphasis of a writing support group. A weekly conversation with other writers is a way to maintain momentum. Most groups ask each member to set a goal at the end of every session, and to report on the goal at the start of the meeting.
Exploring why goals are or are not met is fodder for discussion. The questions below mostly come from the University of Michigan Rackham Graduate School’s “Making a Thesis or Dissertation Support Group Work for You.”
- What went well with your dissertation since the last meeting? What did you accomplish? (Give kudos.)
- What didn’t go so well?
- What will you do differently in the coming week (or two weeks)?
- What are your specific goals to accomplish during that time?
- What obstacles might keep you from meeting those goals?
- In what ways will you address those obstacles?
- What have you learned about what helps you to write well? Productive times of day, locations, tools?
- What problems, if any, have you encountered that are affecting your progress on the dissertation (e.g., with a part of the dissertation itself, a relationship problem that has arisen in conjunction to your dissertation work, a problem with your advisor or committee)?
- How will you reward yourself for meeting your goals?
- Are there (simple) ways the group can give you support?
The benefits and pitfalls that pertain to feedback-focused writing groups are also applicable to support-focused writing groups. I cover these in Dissertation Writing Groups | Feedback and Motivation.
Virtual Writing Communities
Both quiet writing groups and writing support groups can be virtual. You can access other online communities as well.
- Support groups can meet via phone, Skype, or FaceTime. Setting a consistent time and place to “meet” allows far flung participants to be part of a supportive community.
- For quiet writing with support, the online “Shut Up and Write” communities are Twitter groups that holds online “meetings” every other week on Tuesdays for an hour of intense writing productivity. There are groups for Australia, North America, and the UK.
- Dean Jan Allen, of Cornell University, hosts a Productive Writer Listserv that is open to all. It helps graduate student writers during the December/January term break. Once you sign up, you receive messages, every other week, with writing encouragement and advice.
- Academic Writing Month takes place each November sponsored by the blog PhD2Published. Participants sign up with a goal on a public Accountability Spreadsheet. Support is offered collectively using the Twitter hashtag #AcWriMo.
University Sponsored Boot Camps and Retreats
Your regular writing habit can get a jump start by participating in your university’s Dissertation Boot Camp or Writing Retreat. The first boot camps were started at the University of Pennsylvania  and the first reported dissertation retreat was at the University of Colorado. They are now offered by many universities, including Princeton, University of California Merced, Claremont Graduate School, Cornell University, University of Wisconsin-Madison, University of Texas at Austin, and Australia National University.
Another service is offered at University of California Davis, which pairs writers with accountability partners.
Like fitness boot camps, the premise is that new habits are formed by repeated and successful practice. The duration of boot camps vary from two weeks (the norm at Stanford University, which offers 10 sessions a year) to mini-boot camps of three days (like Boston College).
Typically, boot camp offers:
- Initial workshop to help participants set goals and analyze their writing habits
- Food and drink
- A quiet space with access to printers
- Companionship with students from other departments at the same stage
- A legitimate commitment that provides a reason to leave the house (say good bye to the laundry and the kids) and leave the lab (advisors see boot camp as legit)
- Access to trained writing tutor
Boot camps are sometimes sponsored by the Graduate Dean’s Office and sometimes by the campus Writing Center. If you want to advocate for one on your campus, those are places to start.
Data shows that far from being remedial, boot camp participants finish more quickly and report improvement in their writing practices and attitudes about writing. There have been several published articles assessing the impact of boot camps and intensive writing retreats. Among them are articles in Across the Disciplines (2015), Praxis: The Writing Center Journal (nd), The Writing Lab (2013), and NASPA: Excellence in Practice white paper series (2011).
Combining the Three Models
Although I have described the three models – quiet writing, writing support, and writing feedback – as distinct, they can be blended. Most groups have a primary emphasis, but borrow aspects of others as the needs and desires of the group evolve. Many boot camps incorporate some aspects of guidance, along with the quiet writing time. Some feedback groups include time for quiet writing. Most feedback groups spend some time on support and encouragement. (Beware of spending too much time problem solving or complaining, at the expense of insufficient time giving feedback to the author-of-the-day.)
In the last few months before submitting our dissertations, one of my feedback writing groups shifted modes completely. None of us could handle any more input. But we craved encouragement and community. Instead of sitting around a table, we took a weekly vigorous 3-mile walk. The initial steep climb was dubbed “pissed off hill” and whomever was most upset with their advisor used the time to vent. None of us responded (we were huffing and puffing our way up the ascent). By the time we reached the crest, the aggrieved person was spent – emotionally and physically. It was a cathartic release. Just before commencement, we returned to the open space where we hiked wearing our robes and had a celebratory photo taken.
Published July 6, 2016